Raising the Smoking Age Won't Necessarily Raise the Age at Which People Start Smoking


Assef Elweter

When New York City officials floated their we-know-what's-good-for-you proposal to hike the age at which people can legally purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21, their assumption was that people would then actually start smoking at a later age than they do now. But the evidence from drinking age laws doesn't support this assumption. In fact, Americans are now starting to drink at a younger age than they were before the federal government mandated everybody's 21st birthday as the legal gateway to bust-free booze consumption.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "In 2003, the average age of first use of alcohol was about 14, compared to about 17 1/2 in 1965." The age is up by a few months (PDF) from its status twenty years ago, but it's down by over three years from where it was before controlling access to alcohol became such a big policy priority.

Back in the 1960s, states set their own drinking ages without federal strong-arming, and the result was a range from 18 to 21, enforced with varying degrees of severity or disinterest, depending on local conditions. Ages in many states dipped during the 1970s, when it became clear that politicians considered teenagers trustworthy enough to handle M-16s. But the National Minimum Drinking Age Act ended the fun in 1984, denying a percentage of highway funds to states that refused to hike their drinking ages to a uniform 21.

Enforcement was stepped up, too, from the "if you can reach the bar" standard that I remember prevailing in New York around 1980, to the ultraviolet lights and magnetic scanners intended to detect fake IDs that Boston watering holes were strongly encouraged to install in the 1990s. Since then, we've seen a technological arms race between booze-law enforcers and fake ID vendors that has become fodder for both comic movies and news stories.

And, as mentioned, despite alcohol restrictions becoming a national priority, the average age at which people have their first drink has dropped by over three years.

Is there any good reason to expect a different result from hiking the legal age to buy cigarettes?

Don't miss Reason TV's video documenting young New Yorkers' reactions to the smoking age proposal:

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  1. That's crazy talk I never smoked after I was 18...oh wait, that's not how that's supposed to work is it?

  2. This seems like pretty much common sense.

  3. Wat? If only I'd known I was smoking illegally at 16. I thought it was only illegal to buy cigarettes.

  4. Don't most people who smoke begin smoking before they're 18?

    1. I started when I was 13 in the early '90s. My parents and most of my friends' parents smoked, and they all bought them by the carton, so lifting a pack here and there was never a challenge. Once I got to high school I just went to a little convenience store down the street from the school that regularly sold tobacco and alcohol to minors. They gouged the hell out of the price on the alcohol, and picked what kind of beer they would sell us, but they didn't really profit that much on the cigarettes.

  5. Isn't there some kid in Thailand who started when he was one?

  6. I started smoking when I was 12. Had no problem walking into a store and buying cigarettes. This was in the 1950s.

    1. You could probably get a .22 in the same trip.

    2. There were also the vending machines; two-bits at the time. Never had one ask for an ID.

  7. If young women don't smoke, how will we know if they poke?

  8. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "In 2003, the average age of first use of alcohol was about 14, compared to about 17 1/2 in 1965."

    McDonald's serves beer!

    Perhaps one of the reasons for the difference in perspectives is the substantial difference in the drinking age of the two countries. When Americans find out for the first time what Germany's drinking age is, the reaction is mostly shock or disbelief. In Germany, 14-year-old minors are allowed to consume and possess alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine in the presence of their parents. At age 16, German minors are allowed to drink beer and wine without parents having to be there. Once they reach 18 and become adults, they are allowed to drink any sort of alcohol such as hard liquor and are not restricted to just beer and wine.

    While Americans are shocked with the little restrictions on alcohol consumption in Germany, Germans are shocked that people in the States have to wait 21 years to enjoy their first legal alcoholic beverage of choice.

    Do not be alarmed:

    The public consumption of alcohol in Switzerland is legal, so do not be alarmed if you see a group of teenagers drinking a six-pack on public property; this is by no means out of the ordinary and should not be interpreted as threatening.

    1. "In Germany, 14-year-old minors are allowed to consume and possess alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine in the presence of their parents"

      Heck, that's true in my state, too. As long as it's in the home.

      1. The major difference is allowing it outside, such as at a restaurant. And a 16 year old could legally go to a bar and beer and wine for himself there. That's a serious felony here in every state.

        Besides, even if consumption in the home were not criminalized, I bet it would still be grounds for CPS to take your kids away.

        1. In Ohio, a parent can order a drink and give it to their minor child in a restaurant. Always thought that was pretty sensible.

    2. The worst beer I have ever had, even worse than Keystone or Lucky, was a McBier I had in Heidelberg.

    3. I remember drinking beer in pubs with friends when I was 16 and an exchange student in Germany. And I remember getting a little drunk at Oktoberfest with the family I was living with. Fun times. All perfectly normal and I never saw any signs of the problems that minors-only prohibition has led to in the US. When I returned to the states and described all this to my mom, she was fine with letting me drink now and then at home. Fortunately, I was not taken away by CPS.

  9. Any idea why people would be starting drinking younger now?

    1. "Forbidden" = "Cool"

    2. And "You have to be grownup to drink" + "14-year-olds want to be grownups"

  10. Oh, what the hey!?!?!?

    The ad at the top of the page: "We DON'T like young men; we want YOU!"

    I'm 37, I'm not "old".

  11. Comeon dude, roll that beautiful bean footage.

  12. I think I am calling bullshit on this one.

    I'm sorry. After nearly thirty years of a raised drinking age (which allegedly saved thousands upon thousands of lives) and millions upon millions spent on "alcohol prevention" and drinking age enforcement (including a New Jersey law that revokes a teen's drivers license even before he or she is old enough to obtain one), kids really start drinking younger? I have to wonder if the study wasn't skewed a little in order to allow the NIAAA to announce a scare headline.

    After reading the NIAAA report, it has all the earmarks of a government agency seeking to justify its existence, enlarge its budget, and push its agenda by resort to the old government trick of telling us that the "problem" that the agency has been supposedly combatting for years, with supposed success, is somehow worse than it has ever been before.

  13. This raising of the smoking purchasing age is clearly unconstitutional. We have an amendment allowing 18 year olds to vote. That means that 18 year olds are adults.

    Likewise for this nonsense of raising the drinking age to 21. This is another unconstitutional move on the part of the states because of the 26th amendment. I bet Libertarians have argued this very issue.

    "There's no need to fear. Underzog is here!"

  14. Hell, I didn't have my first cigar till I was about 45!

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